Hearing early word about a supposedly “great” film tends to color one’s perceptions of what they wind up seeing. Frances Ha and Mad Max: Fury Road are two examples for me where hyperbolic statements led to heightened expectations, which in turn led to disappointment. In the case of Anomalisa, said hyperbole actually works to the film’s advantage. There was quite a rightly-kicked-up fuss about this film when it made the festival rounds in September; after all, it’s a film by quirky wizard Charlie Kaufman, the man who wrote Being John Malkovich and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.
With Anomalisa, you should expect nothing less than a terrific and skewed examination of the shared human experience of expectations and ideals. Through the medium of stop-motion animation, Kaufman and co-director Duke Johnson (director of the fantastic stop-motion “Community” episode, “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas”) nail exactly what it’s like to try to be someone in a world of no-ones, no matter how solipsistic it might seem. Anomalisa covers a lot of ground, from loneliness to the raising and dashing of hopes, and how the majority of us look in the eyes of someone who just doesn’t care.
Enter the world of British expatriate, husband, father, and author Michael Stone (David Thewlis), recently arrived in Cincinnati from Los Angeles to give a speech at a customer service convention. His book, “How May I Help You Help Them?” has apparently revolutionized the customer service industry, with someone telling him his practices have netted a 90% rise in productivity at their job. There’s something wrong, though, as everyone he meets – the guy on the plane next to him, his cabdriver, everyone who crosses his path – has the same face and the same voice (Tom Noonan, credited as “Everyone Else”), and they all talk about the same mundane things, showing little interest in what they’re saying.
As he checks into the Fregoli Hotel (more on the name Fregoli later) and readies himself for another soulless night in some place where he doesn’t know or care about anyone or anything, he hears a different voice. A female voice. Someone who isn’t like the others. Running out into the hallway, he meets Lisa Hesselman (Jennifer Jason Leigh), whose beautiful voice is matched by her looks, which stand out above all of the other drones. This night, like the rest of Michael’s life, is just about to begin, with the prospect of this awakening of his senses and the hope of encountering anything but the banal.
The name “Fregoli” will give it all away; it’s an actual disorder which Michael seemingly suffers from (but it’s never actually said in the film), seeing the people he interacts with as the same person, just with different hair or clothes. Using this as a plot device to show either Michael’s mental illness or simply his worldview is a masterstroke, made all the easier to accept with the use of puppets. It’s a lovely, interesting way to show someone trapped in his own mind and to further detach him from society, making his interactions with the anomaly called Lisa (hey, hey!) all the more meaningful.
Even though Anomalisa moves through so many different levels of metaphor and can result in many interpretations, we almost forget that it’s just a film about a lonely man who has made a life for himself by writing a book pushing people to be bland and pedestrian. However, Kaufman and Johnson keep the film from being anything but bland and pedestrian by giving us genuine human moments. The strangely forced conversation between passenger and cabdriver; the meeting of a celebrity; the hesitant fumblings between two people in bed for the first time… Life isn’t as well-scripted the most stylized Hollywood film; like real life, Anomalisa is full of pauses, silences, and awkwardness, all of which are highlighted by the film’s languid, dreamlike mood.
The film is also full of small bits of vibrance and fleeting joy, neither of which may last as long as you’d like (if you know your Kaufman, you probably already know how the film ends), but at least there’s some small ray of sunshine in Michael’s otherwise trapped life. Anomalisa is neither a fast-paced, laugh-out-loud comedy or a swooning romantic drama, so don’t believe all the hype. Instead, take it for what it is: a sideways look at the world from the point of view of a man chained to the ordinary. Stay in your seats for a song and sound effects over the closing credits which hammer home this film’s theme.
» MOVIE REVIEWS » Anomalisa